Soho 1948. A glamorous West End Girl charms a naive young barmaid into her service. This is the maid's true account of life in the decadent underbelly of postwar London.
On this website, you can read book extracts and explore Barbara's interesting world.
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Did Mae Roberts really exist?
The Bow Street Court Registers - A bit of Soho History
Sometimes one reads a real life account and you think its credibility is borderline. Barbara's bit of Soho history, an account of her life with the prostitutes in Soho, at times read like a work of fiction. I have never doubted her or her story, but deep down I always wanted to find some evidence of fact. Not necessarily because I wanted to test her truth, I am actually not quite sure exactly why. Curiosity? Idleness? Too many detective novels?
Perhaps we all romanticize about being Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, and I have to admit that this fantasy played out quite strongly in my own mind. Barbara cared so much about the people whom she met in Soho that she went to great lengths to protect their identities. Even with some gentle (and slightly devious) prodding, she never compromised or slipped on her commitment to protect the identity of the people she describes, and their descendants. This made the challenge just that much more enticing.
So, how do you investigate the lives of people mostly long gone, people who feature prominently in our awareness as a collective noun - common prostitutes, gangsters, small time crooks - but seldom as real individuals with real names and a real history. People who only find longstanding notoriety or fame as loveable or detestable fictional characters, sometimes the focus in sensational news articles, but very seldom regarded as worthy and noteworthy members of society.
Even in famous serial killer cases, we seldom remember the names of the poor victims - we all know the name of Jack the Ripper, but how many of us know or care about the names of his victims? Besides, those names may or may not have been made up. The same with Barbara's book. The names people have used in real life has been changed. And most of the characters she engaged with in Soho used assumed names in any case. Their very existence depended on being as anonymous as possible.
Great challenge! Fortunately, there are some clues in Barbara's account - newspapers, courts, and the occasional clue I got from her in conversation. I have promised Barbara that I will honour and respect her wish to protect identities, but some of this knowledge is in the public domain. Perhaps a somewhat obscure public domain, but nevertheless accessible to anyone who cares enough to dig.
My first port of call was the London Metropolitan Archives, hoping to find an oblique reference to Mae Roberts (not her real name) in the registers of the old Bow Street Court. I did not expect to see the name Mae Roberts, but I did expect to see a list of names of prostitutes who were "taken in" by the police (you can read the details in Barbara's Memoir - West End Girls). Amazingly, those court records still exist, not nicely packaged in Wikipedia format, but in good old-fahioned hand written ledgers
Every single case for the day is recorded, with the name of the complainant, the name of the offender, the date, time and nature of the offence, whether the defendant pleaded guilty or not, and the fine, if one was imposed. The day at court seemed to have an established rhythm - first the common prostitutes, then the drunk and the disorderly, then the loiterers with intent, the users of obscene language and the causers of willful obstruction. And only then the "interesting" cases. The ones that cannot be described by a templated stamp.
Very interesting, and thanks to historic film adaptations and novels, one can just imagine the scenes in one's head. So did I have any luck in finding an oblique reference to Fay? Alas not. But I did find hundreds of colourful names, who knows whether they are real or not - Mary Molloy, housewife, 26. Doris Lovejoy, 31, dress maker. Lily le Brun, waitress. Margaret Redhead, 44, independent.